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An Open Letter to the Peace Movement


I first marched for freedom, justice and peace in 1963. The place was Los Angeles, and the cause was Civil Rights. In the late sixties and early seventies, as a graduate student at the University of Oregon, I marched often against the Vietnam War. In fact, there has not been a single military action by the United States that I’ve supported as an adult. Not one.

However, I am not a pacifist. Over the years, I’ve expressed my view, before peace marches and after, that if the U.S. were under attack, then I would support a military response. And I believe that is the case now, which is why I am leaving your ranks.

I am writing to share my steps in deciding to leave the peace movement; to challenge you to do your work in a way that is constructive rather than divisive (as I believe your early responses have been); and to urge you to avoid easy analogies, such as Vietnam, and to find radical new ways to “wage peace.”

1. We are under attack.

This is where I begin. I know some of you think we are not under attack, a position I cannot comprehend. Others of you think we are justifiably under attack, a position I partially understand.

But the facts are clear: we explicitly have been under attack at least since the late 90s when various proclamations against us were issued by radical Islamic groups; a “holy war” against the U.S. was explicitly declared. The seriousness of that decree now should be clear to all. Whether that war is justified or not is another issue; the first point to make clear is that war has been declared against us, and we are under attack.

2. When a nation is under attack, the first decision must be whether to surrender or to fight.

I believe there is no middle ground here: you either fight or you don’t fight, and doing nothing amounts to surrender. In other words, I want victory before peace because I believe no peace is possible without victory when your enemy is, in John Leonard’s telling phrase, “the Kamikazes of Kingdom Come.”

I realize the great danger of fighting is turning into the enemy. But the certainty of not fighting is being defeated by the enemy. I would rather be in danger of becoming a less moral person than to be defeated because only if I am free can I hope to create “a radical peace” that would reshape the world in a way that would make it more hospitable and safe for everyone.

Of course, this leads to the most important issue of all:

3. There are many ways to fight.

Here is where I part company with my former colleagues in the peace movement.

I do not believe the network of terrorism can be defeated without engaging it directly, which I believe will result in violent acts. I believe this because I don’t believe anything can be done to make terrorists surrender and I believe, in their world view, dying for their cause is a holy act, which means they are willing to take others out with them, as we have seen.

Now I respect that there are pacifists among you who disagree with me, and I have no problem with that. What I have a problem with is something else, and let me use an example to show you what I mean.

I live in Portland, Oregon. On the Sunday after the tragedy, there were two large marches in the city. The first, drawing several thousand, was a peace march. In that march, I was able to find only one American flag being carried. Later there was a patriotic march, also drawing several thousand, and almost everyone carried an American flag.

The contrast was startling and very misleading.

The danger of the peace movement is that it will convey the impression, in a world in which media images are important (whether we like it or not), that it is neutral, or even negative, about the issue of supporting what has been variously called “the American way of life,” or “the values of the civilized world,” or “the free world.”

Some of you are cultural relativists and believe that the Taliban’s treatment of women, to list one example, is “a cultural phenomenon” about which we should not make value judgments. But I believe a war of historic proportions is going on here. Some historians are calling this “the 12th century against the 18th century” in terms of the contrasting views of humanity in conflict; I tend to think of it as a war between two perversions, the perversion of extreme materialism against the perversion of extreme spiritualism.

However it’s described, I believe one side or the other is going to win this war. I don’t think “a draw” is possible. And I believe there is much more opportunity to create “a radical peace,” creating a more just world, if the U.S. coalition wins rather than if the terrorists win.

So a choice must be made. As the old labor song goes, which I’ve sung with you many times in another context, Which side are you on? It’s time to write new verses to that cherished old song.

To summarize: Just as inaction amounts to surrender, I believe marching ambiguously with no visible “images” communicating the choice you’ve made in this war suggests you’ve made no choice (surrender) or suggests what is false for the vast majority of you, that you support the overthrow of our way of life (as opposed to its radical transformation).

Here, as perhaps no where else, the solution is simple: more of you must carry the American flag when you march. To some of you this sounds corny, to others it sounds outright obscene: but in a media age, it offers a clear opportunity for you to express your pacifism without at the same time giving the impression that you do not support values shared by most of the world. If you can’t stand carrying the American flag, how about the UN flag?

I also want to challenge you to find radical new ways to wage peace. If we put ground troops into Afghanistan, for example, perhaps hundreds or thousands of you should go to the battle field and stand between the combatants. Put your action where your beliefs are. I believe you would be shot (probably by both sides!) but I would respect you for the creativity of your attempt.

So farewell, my friends. I look forward to a future time when our views are similar again. I hope for victory, and when we have won it, I hope to join you again in working for “a radical peace” that will make the world more equal, more free, and more pleasant for all the world’s peoples.


Charles DeemerPortland, [email protected]